Friday, 31 October 2014

Unlikely Endorsements

Celebrities who lend their fame and standing to advertisers have featured here in the past but mainly as brand ambassadors for tobacco or beauty products – the nicotine jungle and the fragrant realm of cosmetics were the natural habitat for the Hollywood star in need of extra pocket money. Today we present a selection of some of the more unlikely product endorsements to cross our path. Starting with automotive products where the ethereal glamour of Madeleine Carroll seems a long way from the oil and grease of the motor service bay. No surprise to see Bing Crosby lend a hand – never known to turn down a request. Jack Carson (memorably egregious in Mildred Pierce) does his bit for Ford Trucks in a movie tie-in but Alan Ladd’s enthusiasm for the diminutive charms of the Whizzer takes some believing. In the home of two-wheeled monsters like the Harley-Davidson and the Indian Chief Black Hawk it seems almost un-American to sing the praises of the humble Whizzer. Food products were unfamiliar territory for the average star and while Gene Kelly presiding over a barbecue is quite credible, it’s difficult to accept the idea of Rita Hayworth preparing a round of sandwiches. Bing’s lugubrious expression suggests that the kitchen table is a long way from his comfort zone. Finally – we have Rita (a lady who hated to say no) again and Shirley Temple commending some very basic items of furniture before Ray Milland closes the show with some family fun with power tools. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Casa Galimberti – an Illustrated Building in Milan

Italian architects developed their own version of Art Nouveau in which they had the freedom to experiment in terms of decoration and ornamentation without feeling any pressure to be innovative in terms of form or spatial organisation. It was given the name Stile Liberty (in honour of the Regent Street department store whose affordable Art Nouveau product lines were much sought after in Italy) and enjoyed its greatest public acceptance in Piedmont and Lombardy – much boosted by the Turin Exhibition in 1902. Most examples of Stile Liberty buildings are formally conservative, Classical and Baroque variants, occasionally with Medievalist elements. Concessions to fashion were confined to the surfaces in the form of carved figures, slithery organic wrought-iron, painted panels and ceramic decorative schemes showing a strong preference for floral or other natural forms. 

Casa Galimberti in Milan is a classic example of a pictorial building – a 1905 apartment block where visual interest derives primarily from the spectacular surface imagery. The architect, Giovanni Battista Bossi (1864-1924), had two designers on his team, one responsible for the figurative ceramic panels that run along the building at first floor level and one for the vertical panels of painted foliage that climb the second and third floors. The figurative panels present a hedonistic vision calculated to grab attention - curvaceous female figures in revealing costume and a few male companions disport themselves, gathering fruit, drinking wine, listening to music and engaging in a little light flirtation. Galimberti was a property developer who bought the site from the city authority when the stables that previously occupied it became redundant as electric trams supplanted the horse-drawn variety. It may well be that a commercial imperative lay behind the decision to surround the building with steamy imagery. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Machine Age Temple in Milan

One of the less celebrated attractions of Milan is Deposito Messina, a delirious assemblage of cast-iron and glass built in 1912 to accommodate some 150 of the city’s trams. I like to think that the grandeur of this construction reflects the high esteem in which trams are held by the citizens of Milan. It has the air of a building conceived to impress and for the humble tram there can be no better shelter anywhere else. A glazed roof flies high overhead supported on iron piers and trusses while at ground level there are two enormous bays each placed at 45° either side of a central access road. The unprepossessing exterior on Via Messina gives little hint of the glories to be found inside. Not everyone is going to want to trek out to see it for themselves but for those who do, tram routes 12 and 14 from the city centre run along Via Messina. Alight at Cenisio and walk back – less than 5 minutes. 

By 1912 the Italian Futurist love affair with movement and speed was already underway and both Boccioni (The Forces of the Street) and Carrà (What the Tram Told Me) had identified the urban tram as a key emblem of modernity, placing it at the centre of their compositions. This building seems animated by the same spirit – a Machine Age Temple to the Tram. Finally, I must acknowledge the expertise of tram-chaser extraordinaire, Peter Ehrlich, whose invariably splendid photographs brought this wondrous place to my attention. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Tree House in Milan

Green buildings, clad with vegetation have been around for a decade or more (the example below is from Quai Branly in Paris, 2006) but the recently completed Bosco Verticale in Milan extends the concept to include entire trees. Tree planting has become commonplace in hotel and corporate atriums the world over but this is the first example of trees migrating to the façade of a building. Bosco Verticale comprises two towers, of 18 and 26 floors and is on the edge an enormous regeneration project named Porta Nuova, close to Porta Garibaldi station, north of the city centre. The architect, Stefano Boeri, designed the two blocks with terracing to accommodate up to 730 trees (between 3 and 6m in height) together with 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 perennials. As the years go by and the trees grow it will present a novel management problem to ensure the trees are kept free of disease and pruned to avoid becoming too big for the building. 

The rationale for this adventurous project is to combat air and noise pollution (Milan has some of the worst air quality in Italy) and to offer the residents of the 400 apartments some direct experience of the natural world. There is a lower proportion of open space in Milan than in any other major Italian city. Tests have shown that the tree cover will act as insulation against winter cold and mitigate the build-up of high temperatures in summer sun. What is visible now is only the beginning of the scheme and the foliage looks a little thin at present. When mature in 5 to 10 years time it has the potential to look spectacular.